Once you’ve decided on the topic you’d like to research (whether broad in scope or very specific) a useful way to start thinking about the nitty gritty is to consider the type of source you could use:
- Tertiary sources – such as encyclopedias, textbooks, and books aimed at the children’s market. These can be particularly useful if you are researching a completely new subject that you know nothing, or very little, about.
- Secondary sources – books and journal articles. Published written histories often give an author’s views on a subject, so it is prudent to get several viewpoints and be aware of possible bias. Books and articles will include references and bibliographies, which will provide you with the primary sources which the author has used, and will mention other potential secondary material to look at.
- Primary sources – Archival records are unique and usually unpublished. Written during the time you are researching, these can include diaries, wills, letters and newspapers. Though they can be successfully reproduced in books and articles, when studied first hand they can provide an immediacy with a period in history which the secondary and tertiary material can’t.
FINDING OUT MORE
For 1. and 2. Your local library whether the public library or an academic/ research library will be invaluable.
Sadly, the number of public libraries in the UK is reduced nowadays thanks to local authority budget cuts – so it is important for us to support our local library where we can. There will be an inter-library loan service available to get books which aren’t stocked in you public library (there is usually a cost associated with this)
Many academic libraries aren’t always accessible to those outside the institution i.e. those not studying at the university. Some do provide access for reference and private study (in which case you would be able to use, but not borrow, printed material on the open shelves, and you would probably need to sign a visitors book and agree to abide by the library rules on your first visit). Also, these libraries often have extended opening hours – usually well into the evening during the week during the academic term, which can come in very handy. So it is always worth checking the admission criteria for your local academic library.
For 3. it is the turn of archives and record offices. Again, unfortunately, recent budget cuts have affected record offices and reduced opening hours are common. They are accessible to the public; many in the UK belong to the County Archive Research Network (CARN) scheme, which means that users of the search rooms are required to have a valid CARN readers card (issued free of charge as long as you provide official proof of name and address on you first visit, and valid for a year)
Remember too, primary resources which are not print.
4. Images and artefacts – Art galleries and museums are the places to discover these. Regarding budget cuts, sadly the same applies to the museum sector. Several authors I know have postcard reproductions of paintings, or objects, above their desks as visual reminders of the period in time they are working on. Similarly photographs of a location in which your novel is set can evoke a sense of place whether or not you’ve actually been there.
So, having started to think about the practicalities of your historical research – what’s the most useful practical tip you’re taking from this outline?